Still trying to change or cancel your flight amid coronavirus crisis? 4 (new) things to know

Travelers trying to change or cancel upcoming flights as the coronavirus pandemic drags on face a dizzying number of airline policies and procedures.

a person sitting at a desk: Airline ticket.

Airlines started with waivers for flights to China in January and now have a lineup that covers most upcoming flights given an unprecedented plunge in travel demand.

Having a hard time keeping up with the latest rules? Here are four important updates:

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1. Check your airline’s travel waivers to see if flights that weren’t covered before are now.

Airlines ​​​​​are extending their travel waivers to cover a broader travel period and more destinations as the crisis deepens and government travel restrictions increase.

American, Delta and United, for example, are now allowing travelers with tickets for travel through May 31 to change or cancel them without paying the usual hefty ticket change fee. (Fare difference may apply.) Those who opt to cancel will receive a travel credit, not their money back, and there is fine print including expiration dates.

Until late last week, the waivers only covered travel through April 30, excluding flights during Memorial Day weekend, the traditional kickoff to summer travel season.

Those policies apply to those who bought tickets before March 1. Travelers who bought tickets in March already have a broad fee waiver covering change to their tickets for travel into 2021.

Southwest Airlines, which never charges change fees but does collect any fare difference when travelers change flights, last week tweaked its coronavirus travel policy to waive the fare difference for passengers due to travel through April 30. The new trip has to be for the same route for travel beginning 60 days from the original travel date. So travelers with plane tickets for Easter weekend, for example, can delay the trip until early June without paying extra as long as they rebook.

Travelers uncertain about future travel dates can cancel and receive a credit that is good for a year on any route.

Have tickets for summer travel and unsure about going? Keep an eye on your airline’s waivers for any extensions beyond May 31 or whatever date your airline currently has in place.

2. That travel credit you thought was expiring soon might not be useless after all.

As the coronavirus crisis has halted all but essential trips for the foreseeable future, a big complaint among travelers has been airline expiration dates for travel credits and vouchers, those previously issued and those issued as anxious travelers scramble to cancel their plans.

What good is a $500 in airfare credit, for example, if it has to be used in the near future and you don’t want to get on a plane? Policies vary by airline, but travel credit expiration dates are generally tied to the ticket purchase date, not the travel date, giving travelers who cancel last minute a shorter booking window.

I cancelled my southwest flight today because of the current situation we are in and the credit I got back expires June 24th 2020?? With how it’s looking I will not be flying between now and then please help @SouthwestAir

In response to traveler complaints, Southwest, which has legions of travelers sitting on or about to sit on huge sums of travel credits due to its generous, no-change-fee cancellation policy, last week announced that it is extending the expiration dates for its so-called “travel funds.”

Passenger with travel funds expiring between March 1 and May 31 will now be able to use them through June 30, 2021.

@SouthwestAir Hi, Southwest. I’ve had to cancel some flights, and some of the travel funds expire April 30! With the current situation, it’s not feasible to use this before it expires! Can you help? Either refund the funds or extend the expiration date?

Similarly, travelers who cancel tickets for upcoming flights (currently defined as flights through May 31) will receive travel funds good for travel through June 30, 2021. Southwest spokesman Brian Parrish said the extended deadline is designed in part to allow travelers to say, take the spring break getaway they were planning this year next year instead.

Southwest said customers should see their extended expiration date on Southwest’s website in the next few weeks as the airline updates its computer systems to reflect the new policy.  Passengers need their confirmation number to check their travel funds balance and expiration date.

Delta Air Lines is also giving some travelers extra time to use expiring tickets. The airline said its tickets for travel in March or April that are due to expire before June 30 can now be rebooked for flights through the end of the year.

What do you do if your airline isn’t budging on expiration dates? Keep an eye out on the airline’s website for changes or politely plead your case to the airline.

3. Airlines are starting to offer incentives for passengers to accept a travel voucher instead of a refund (where eligible).

The last thing struggling airlines want to do right now is give passengers money back, so some are getting creative to get passengers to accept a travel credit instead of a refund when both options are available.  

Frontier Airlines last week sent an email to passengers with upcoming flights, offering a $50 voucher, on top of the travel credit, to cancel their flight in advance. The deal expires Wednesday.

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Every week, Capt. John Cox , a retired US Airways pilot, answers your questions about air travel.


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Flying in turbulence one time, I noticed that the wings seemed to be “bouncing” up and down as the plane was buffeted. How much flexibility do the wings have?

Wing can flex much more than most people realize. During testing, the Boeing 787 wings was flexed 26 feet upward before failing. Aircraft designers calculate the maximum stress they anticipate a wing will experience in flight, then make it able to withstand 50% more as a safety margin. This means that the loads on the wing are well within the safe range. 

Compared to earlier jets, today’s aircraft have longer, thinner wings that are more flexible, more fuel efficient and provide a softer ride.

Have you ever flown with Chesley Sullenberger III?

I have known Captain Sullenberger for over 30 years and flown with him several times. We were so close in seniority that we never flew as a crew but I flew on his jumpseat and he flew on my jumpseat.  I appreciate his friendship and the professionalism he displays.

How long do you have to spend at each airline’s training center to qualify to fly their planes?

The training is very intense. Once a pilot reports for training at a carrier’s training center, it usually takes around four to six weeks to get through ground school, advanced flight deck training and full flight simulator. Sometimes the scheduling requirements for the training devices can slow the process.

Do you miss Pan Am?

Yes, Pan American World Airways was an aviation institution for decades. They were America’s “Flag Carrier” for many years and a major reason why the Boeing 747 was so successful. 

Sadly, as the industry changed, the airline was unable to meet the changing demands and went out of business in 1991.  Still, Pan Am will forever be an aviation icon.

What would you do if you had to quarantine your plane mid-air because someone had coronavirus?

If a person becomes ill inflight, crews are trained to provide first aid. Additionally, many airlines have a medical specialist available via phone or radio patch. If the passenger is ill and needs more medical attention, the captain can decide to divert. 

If there is a question about a contagious disease, then the medical professionals at the diversion airport would have to determine if a quarantine were necessary.

Are there any specific for cleaning the plane after a patient suspected of having coronavirus or some other contagious illness has left the plane?

Yes, there are specific maintenance procedures for cleaning an aircraft after suspected contamination. This would not be specific to the coronavirus (coronavirus is a family of viruses; the specific one to which you refer is 2019-NCoV).  Any contamination is treated the same, with disinfectant procedures. This is part of an airline’s emergency response plan for contaminants.

Why are passengers that appear sick not required to wear masks? Stop it at the source!

If a passenger is ill, he or she may not be allowed to travel. That decision is up to the regulators and the airline. However, I do not know of a legal means (i.e. a regulation) that could require a passenger to wear a mask.

How can we protect babies and infants from coronavirus since they can’t wear masks?

The virus is spread by inhaling droplets from an infected person, or by your hands picking up the virus and then touching your eyes.  

Keep your child away from people that are sneezing or coughing. Regularly washing their hands and your own for at least 20 seconds after each bathroom trip and before meals will also provide some protection.

Infectious disease experts say both of those tips are better defenses against coronavirus or any influenza-like illness than the surgical masks sprouting up at airports around the world.

I’m scheduled to fly Feb. 17 from LAX to Thailand connecting through Hong Kong. I know the current coronavirus situation seems to be changing daily. How safe is it to be traveling by airplane and through these airports?

On Jan. 30, the World Health Organization declared 2019-nCOV a world crisis and the U.S. State Department issued its most severe warning level for China, advising Americans not to travel to any part of China unless absolutely necessary.

Following the recommendation of the U.S. State Department is wise.  But if you must travel, there are other connection points you can use to get to Thailand. Contact your airline and see what other cities for connections are available outside China.

I have heard about this coronavirus and it has me very scared about flying with my 10-week-old baby. I am mainly scared about being on the plane with the circulating air conditioning system and that if someone on the plane has it, we would breathe in their air. I have bought 2 P2 face masks; however, those will be far too big for my baby. What do you think?

The 2019-nCoV virus is the specific virus that is commonly being referred to as coronavirus. Corona is a family of viruses including the common cold.

The Centers for Disease Control says that transmission of the virus occurs by droplets from coughing or sneezing or direct contact.

Air on airplanes is filtered through HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) filters which should trap any droplets. Another factor that works in your favor is that the fact that the air on planes is extremely dry, which is not conducive to the virus. The CDC recommends frequent hand washing as the most effective way to prevent contracting a virus. 

While the flight from New Zealand to Houston is long, you will be breathing filtered air that is changed frequently.

What is ice fog and how dangerous is it? Can a plane fly safely in it?

Ice fog happens when supercooled droplets form fog when the temperature is below freezing. At those temperatures, a cloud is usually made up of ice crystals. Occasionally, there are supercooled droplets that freeze on contact with the airplane. Good de-icing systems are essential in such conditions.  

Flying through this condition in a modern airliner with good de-icing equipment is safe. However, when the airplane is on the ground, a layer of ice can form on the airplane that may make it impossible to take off. Many airlines prohibit operations in freezing rain or freezing drizzle.

Why would pilots dump fuel before landing the airplane?

Airplanes frequently depart the airport heavier than the maximum landing weight allowed – the threshold at which a given aircraft can sustain a very hard landing without damage.  During a normal flight, the plan is to burn fuel so the plane’s weight will below that number by the time it lands.

However, if an airplane encounters a technical problem or passenger medical issue and needs to make an emergency landing early in a flight, they won’t have had a chance to burn enough fuel to reduce the weight below the maximum landing weight. This means the flight crew has to quickly get rid of excess weight and the easiest way to do that is by dumping fuel.

Recently there seems to be an increase in aircraft sliding off a taxiway or runway. Are the conditions not safe enough for them to be flying or is it just a matter of the ground crew needing to do a better job of clearing the surface?

In very inclement weather with slick taxiways, the chances of aircraft sliding off the paved surfaces increase. It can be safe to operate the aircraft based on previous reports but still find that the taxiway is slicker than anticipated due to changing conditions. Pilots taxi very carefully when conditions exist where sliding is possible. Ground crews do a wonderful job of clearing snow and ice from the surfaces, but there are limits to what they can do. 

Why, after a plane has crashed into the water, do investigators put the “black box” back in water?

If a flight data recorder is recovered from the water, it is submerged in fresh, clean water to prevent deposits such as salt or minerals from drying out within the device.

When the technicians at the laboratory are ready to download the data, they take the recorder out of the freshwater bath, carefully open it and dry any sections that have been exposed to water. They then download the data into special computers that can read the information.

I’ve been on a lot of flights where the plane seems to turn soon after takeoff. Why is this and is there a minimum altitude the plane must reach before it can be done?             

At many airports, there is a departure procedure requiring the pilot to fly a specific heading. This is loaded into the flight management computer.

The normal minimum altitude for turns is 400 feet. Some operators have slightly higher minimum altitudes for turns.

What happens if one of the pilots become disabled in flight?                  

Both pilots are fully qualified to take off and land. In the event a pilot becomes incapacitated, the other pilot would divert the airplane to the nearest suitable airport, declare an emergency and safely land the airplane.

In larger airplanes, if it were the captain that became incapacitated, then they would have to stop on the runway because only the left side of the airplane has the nose steering wheel used for taxiing. The first officer, who sits on the right, would not be able to taxi the airplane.

Do military aircraft have priority in shared airfields?                 

Whether the military plane receives priority fueling or takeoff depends on the types of aircraft involved and the fuel situation.

Certain types of military airplanes do have priority. Recovering fighters that are low on fuel will have priority. Military transport planes are treated like airliners.

Do flight/cabin crews have fun holiday traditions?

For many operators, uniform restrictions are relaxed a bit during the holidays. Flight crews are creative so some of the most humorous holiday neckties available will be worn with pride. Santa hats replace the traditional uniform hats and holiday pins are added to uniform jackets. 

Some crews will bring battery power lights to enhance the galley area and to spread holiday cheer.

What were your best and worst experiences working on Christmas? 

My best working Christmas experience was a 3-day trip that left Christmas Eve and returned late on the day after Christmas (Boxing Day). I was a first officer at the time. The captain brought the crew together and told us, “I know all of us would rather home with families, but we are not. So let’s make the absolute best of it.” That set the tone for the trip.

At most stops, one of us would go into the airport and return with something for the crew. Chocolate and mints were the favorites. On the overnights, we had nice dinners and enjoyed the company of each other. On Christmas Eve, there was a toast to all those working that night. It was a very memorable trip. 

My worst Christmas wasn’t too difficult: we were scheduled to get home Christmas Eve, but weather and mechanical problems delay our return until early Christmas afternoon.

On every flight I take, I hear an announcement to raise my seat back and close my tray table (typically before landing). But I don’t believe I ever heard an announcement that I may recline my seat and open my tray table. Why isn’t that announced? When is it OK to recline my seat and open my tray table?              

For takeoff, once the airplane is airborne, you may open your tray table and recline your seat.

For landing, tray tables must be stowed and seats in the upright position for the landing and taxi phases. This is normally done when the airplane is descending through 10,000 feet.

There are requirements for the tray table to be stowed and the seat to be in the upright position so there are announcements. There is no requirement to recline or open the tray table; hence, no announcements.

How safe are commercial airports with short runways? 

Commercial airports certified by 14 CFR Part 139 (the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulation governing facility approval) are very safe.

Runway length is carefully calculated before every takeoff and landing with good safety margins. Pilots know that the runway length is short so they pay special attention to touchdown points and approach speeds.

What aspect of commercial aviation do you feel currently needs the most review and reform?   

Pilot training in the upcoming years is probably the most difficult issue facing commercial aviation. The upcoming aviators must be to adapt to increasingly complex airspace, in increasingly complex airplanes while maintaining the ability to fly and navigate manually if necessary. Properly diagnosing and responding to unexpected situations is a critical skill that comes from experience and training.

What were your best and worst experiences working on Thanksgiving? The Thanksgivings I worked often included several hotels taking special care of the flight crews with turkey and all the trimmings. We appreciated the hospitality and the realization that we missed our time with our family to get our passengers to their families. 

The worst was when there were weather problems causing delays or cancelation. We know that there are very few options for passengers due to airplanes being full. We did all we could but there were stranded passengers and holiday plans that were affected.

Which cities or airports do you enjoy flying into during the holiday season?

Seeing the holiday lights in many cities is a special experience. New York and Boston are especially noteworthy as you come over the water toward the city dressed in their “holiday” best. 

When there is time to enjoy it, seeing New York with all the holiday decorations, and the children’s excitement is always fun. 

New Year’s Eve was special when I was in cities with fireworks.

How do pilots train for flying into airports where the airline has never flown?     

Before a new airport is added to a route system, it is evaluated by training pilots to ensure all necessary information is provided to the crews. 

If an airport is in a tricky location, it may require that the pilots be accompanied by an instructor on their first flight there. This was the case when my airline opened service into Mexico City International Airport, which sits more than 7,000 feet above sea level and is surrounded by the Sierra Madres. On my first trip there, an instructor pilot was in the jumpseat to advise us of any special considerations and to evaluate our performance.

Can pilots request a different takeoff runway when they think a different one will work better?             

Pilots can request a different runway but there usually needs to be an operational need in order for it to be granted. For example, if the noise abatement runway is shorter, and the flight is heavily loaded, the pilots would have legitimate operational grounds for requesting the longer runway. But requesting a different runway just to shorten taxi time is not considered sufficient need.

Why don’t airlines stress strongly to passengers that they should leave overhead bins closed during emergency evacuations?  

Passengers who attempt to retrieve overhead luggage during and evacuation put themselves and others at risk. It is critical that people leave their luggage and concentrate on getting out of the airplane quickly. Airlines try to emphasize this, but too many passengers do not pay attention.

If pilots are trained to fly specific planes, what happens when to a pilot when that particular plane is retired? For example, the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 was recently retired, so what happens to MD-80 pilots? 

Pilots change airplanes several times during a career. Moving to a new airplane requires attending ground school, passing a written exam, passing a verbal exam, completing a simulator course, passing a simulator evaluation, passing a line-oriented training evaluation, and passing the initial operating experience evaluation.  

If all goes smoothly, the training and evaluations take around six weeks.

When airplanes are retired, such as the MD-80, all the pilots bid for new assignments. Usually, a pilot’s seniority determines his or her next aircraft.

How do pilots prepare for an early or red-eye flight? Are there sleep requirements? Are you as tired flying a 5 a.m. flight as passengers are?

Red-eye flights are challenging. There are rest requirements for pilots before reporting for duty but it is still tiring to work when your circadian rhythms are low (usually around 4 a.m. body-clock time).  Many pilots will try and get a nap before a late-night flight to help mitigate fatigue. 

For very early flights, the best choice is to get to sleep as early as possible. This is easier said than done, particularly when there are numerous time zone changes from your home. 

Fatigue is a challenge for all flight crew members, especially when crossing time zones.

In your experience, what do pilots make of passengers clapping upon landing? (Do they generally take it as a compliment or an insult?)

It always caused me to smile. The appreciation of executing a challenging approach and landing is a compliment.

Often, pilots feel that we are just doing our jobs when faced with a challenging approach and landing.  We use experience and very good training to ensure the safety of the flight.

How tricky is it to land with one or more blown tires? How many can you have and still land safely? Is it better to have the front or rear ones blow?

Most airliners have two or more tires in each position (left main, right main and nose). Certification standards require that a safe landing can be made with one tire deflated when there are two or more tires in that position. 

I have landed with a deflated main gear tire without a problem. There have been cases of airliners landing with a deflated nose gear problem with no difficulties. In cases where there are more than two tires on the main gear, such as a large airplane, losing one tire would be less of an issue than one of two nose gear tires. 

How do pilots cope with cold/flu season?  Can they take over-the-counter meds like cough syrup or Sudafed, etc. within a certain time range before a flight? How far in advance do they have to call in sick?

Colds are a challenge for all flight crew members. It is essential that pressure changes in the cabin can be equalized in the inner with clear eustachian tubes. Colds can block those tubes making impossible to equalize the pressure. This can be very serious.

Over-the-counter medications can help but pilots must be very careful about what medications are taken prior to flight. There are lists of approved medications and any restrictions that are available to passengers. There are some antihistamines that can be taken but most cough syrups contain ingredients that are not approved. There are some cough drops that are ok.  If a pilot is taking cold medication that require a number of hours before a flight, they must adhere to that restriction. 

When a flight crew member knows that they will be unable to fly due to illness, including a cold, the sooner they let crew scheduling know the better. In most cases, this happens no later than the day before the trip is scheduled to begin. 

Most of the country is preparing to turn their clocks back on Nov. 3. How much of a pain is this for flight crews and dispatchers? And do they have as much trouble as the rest of us telling time in places like Arizona where they don’t observe daylight savings time?

Twice a year, we are reminded of the change on those very early Sunday mornings. When on short overnight stays with outbound flights the following morning, I have seen messages from dispatchers saying, “Please remember that tonight is the change to/from daylight saving time.” This is so that crews can make sure their alarm clocks are set properly for the morning. 

Flights that are already in progress at the time of the change are not affected due to the use of Universal Coordinated Time, the world-wide standard. It does not change. 

The very few areas that do not change are a challenge for crews to remember which time zone they are in during the time of the year. Is Arizona on Mountain or Pacific time? In reality, they do not change from Mountain Standard Time, but part of the year they are in the same time zone as Denver and the other part of the year, they are on Los Angeles time.  

I’ve noticed that the wings aren’t placed in the middle of the plane but at nearly the rear of the plane. Why is this?

I would not say that wings near the rear of the plane, but they are not always in the exact middle as designers seek the best location for the loading envelope and to improve fuel efficiency.

Wing placement is decided based on fuel efficiency and on the loading capabilities (weight and balance). Wings create lift, keeping the plane in the air. They are balanced by the small wing in the tail known as the horizontal stabilizer. This wing is upside down so the lift is created downward. By balancing the two points of lift, the pilots can maintain control of the airplane.

Can you be afraid of heights and still be an airline pilot?     

A true fear of heights could pose a problem even for airplane passengers. It would certainly be an issue for a pilot.  That said, there is a difference between truly being afraid of heights and being fearful of falling, from say, the edge of a skyscraper.

I know many pilots who say they don’t like “heights” but their concern is more about feeling uncomfortable looking down from a building or other edges. However, they are comfortable in airplanes.

You could take a flight to see how you feel and help determine if being a pilot is right for you. 

Can you explain windshear and the effects that has on airplanes?

Windshear is the amount of change in wind direction or velocity over a short distance. This can be a source of turbulence as the airplane travels through a changing air mass. 

One example of windshear’s effect on an airplane could be a change in the ground speed. As a tailwind becomes a headwind, the ground speed would slow down. In extreme cases, a change in direction can cause a loss of airspeed with a resulting reduction in lift.

An hour into American Airlines Flight 4582 on Sept. 1, another plane flew past us in the opposite direction at the same altitude (35,000 ft.) and couldn’t have been more than 500 ft away from us. I mentioned it to the flight attendant, who then spoke with the captain, and she came back and said the pilot said he saw the other plane but it was at least 500 ft away. That seems way too close to me. Would that be considered a near miss? It scared me!                  

At jet cruising altitudes the minimum vertical separation is 1,000 feet. The airplane you saw may have looked closer but it was at least 1,000 feet different altitude. 

If two airplanes were at the same altitude, the air traffic controller would receive an alarm and both flight crews would receive an alarm on their Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS). This multi-redundant systems works very well and midair collisions are extremely rare. 

I appreciate that it scared you, but your captain told you the truth. The opposite direction traffic was vertically separated by over 1,000 feet.

Why are planes not equipped with continuous worldwide satellite tracking versus limited ground based radar tracking?                       

Airplanes are being equipped to have continuous tracking. By January 2020, nearly all airliners will be equipped with transmitters that provide altitude, heading, ground speed and the aircraft’s identification to controllers via satellite.

The process to equip airplanes has been underway for several years but modifying an entire fleet is a big, expensive and time-consuming process.

In the past, pilots made position reports to controllers via high-frequency radios but this process was replaced by automatic reports sent via satellite communication (SATCOM). Now there is nearly continuous transmission of this data. 

I’m a senior in high school and want to become an airline pilot. Should I go to college or go straight to flight school?      

You will have more options if you go to college. A college degree will give you more alternatives if you ever develop a medical issue that would prevent you from flying. It will also help you if you choose to go into management.  In your search, you will come across colleges that have both flight schools and an aviation major. That is the best of both worlds.

As with any college search, don’t fixate on brand names when it comes to aviation programs. While there are some very well-known colleges with flight majors, look around at lesser-known programs that are less expensive. Your guidance counselor can help you identify programs.

With so many passengers bringing emotional support animals on planes, what can be done to help people who are allergic to animal dander?

 Flight attendants can often persuade passengers to switch seats providing separation between the animal and the person with the allergies. The earlier the flight attendants know about the issue, the more likely they can arrange a solution. However, there are times when passengers can’t or won’t switch seats, making for a difficult flight. 

If this happens to you or a companion, try opening the overhead air vent. By directing the flow of air that hasn’t been exposed to animal dander toward the passenger with the allergy, you can reduce the severity of the reaction. 

With flocks of birds wreaking havoc on airplane engines, why aren’t there screens on the engines that would allow air to flow in but but keep animals out?

This has been suggested by some for years but it’s not a perfect solution. One potential problem is the screen splitting the bird into pieces small enough to enter the engine.

Additionally, if the bird causes damage to the screen, it, too, can be pulled into the engine causing more damage than the bird itself. Jet engines very carefully control the airflow into the fan and compressor section. if a bird got caught in the screen, that could potentially disrupt airflow, leading to a loss of power.

In most cases, a bird goes into the engine and is thrown outward into the fan duct where it does little or no damage. Very rarely one will get pulled into the core, which can cause more damage.

Bird-strike-induced emergency landings like 2009’s Miracle on the Hudson, when US Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger landed Flight 1549 in the Hudson or the Russian A321 pilot who put his plane down in a Russian cornfield in August are extremely rare. However, they do illustrate the need to improve bird tolerance in newer engines. Manufacturers do extensive bird-ingestion testing but there are still improvement to be made. 

When do pilots send the request for ground crew?

Ground crews are actually pretty proactive. For incoming flights, they are ready to move into place once the plane taxis in since they know it has already touched down. For departing planes, once the jet bridge is retracted, they know pushback will occur very soon.

How do pilots avoid anvil-head clouds and other signs of thunderstorms while flying at night?  

Pilots use onboard weather radar to remain clear of thunderstorms during day and night operations. Lightning is actually easier to see at night, which shows the pilots the location of the storm.

Can pilots nap, read books or watch movies in the cockpit?

It depends on the country and the situation. When there are augmented crews and a rest area (like the one seen here) on board, pilots who are off duty can nap or read. If there are only two pilots, then controlled napping depends on the country. Some allow it (done properly, it really helps to lessen fatigue), while such as the U.S. prohibit it.

What does the crew eat on long flights? 

Pilot meals vary from airline to airline. Usually on long flights, the crew meals are prepared in a similar way to passenger meals. The flight attendants bring the meals to the pilots once the the passengers have been served. The menu varies depending on the departure airport and the catering request.

Recently, a Delta passenger got his flight all to himself. Public relations bonanzas aside, that seems like a money-losing move for the airline. How do they decide whether it’s worth it to fly a near-empty plane? Does there need to be a minimum number of passengers?  

The decision to fly an empty plane is actually based on much more than headcount. Airlines also factor in maintenance schedules, the next day’s flights, weather-induced logistical chances and paid cargo.

I’ve been on a lot of flights where the plane seems to turn soon after takeoff. Why is this and is there a minimum altitude before it can be done?   

It is routine to turn shortly after takeoff. Common reasons include noise abatement rules and avoiding an airplane departing on a parallel runway. Most operators do not turn until reaching 400 feet to ensure good separation from the ground in the event of a problem.

However, there are some special cases where a turn is needed earlier, such as at Washington Reagan National Airport. When departing north, a turn is required very soon after takeoff to avoid the prohibited airspace over the Mall and White House.

How dangerous is a cracked cockpit windshield? When is it most likely to happen (takeoff, cruising altitude or landing) and what can be done about it?

Windshields consist of two panes of thick glass with a plastic layer between for heating. Either pane is capable of holding full pressure in the other is lost. In my experience, more of the windshields cracked during climb than in other phases of flight. If this occurs, pilots will descend to reduce the pressure and plan on a diversion if necessary.

There are so many reports of pets dying on flights. Are pets safe and comfortable in baggage? I have stopped flying to protect my pet.

Aircraft designers know that live animals will be shipped so they ensure there is adequate airflow and heat for them.  If you are shipping an animal it is prudent to ensure the connecting airport is not extremely hot or cold during the time the animal will be there. All of us protect our pets and airlines realize how the responsibility that comes with accepting a pet for shipment. Talk to the airline staff and plan your trip to minimize connection times without extreme weather conditions.

What guidelines are in place in case planes are flying at the same altitude and approaching each other?  

Air traffic control prevents airplanes from approaching each other at the same altitude. Airplanes also have traffic avoidance systems that will have one airplane climb and the other descend.

Calling a family pet an emotional support animal is rife for abuse. If you need a support animal or blanket to feel secure while flying, it might be time to consider the train. How can we Think you can get the people that write the laws to use common sense?   

Airlines are slowly making progress in requiring more documentation for all animals traveling on board. Too many passengers have abused the emotional support animal rule and it can have a safety implication during an evacuation.

How secure are planes in the air from being hacked by technology brought onboard by passengers bring on planes?  

Critical flight computers are shielded and not accessible by the internet or passenger electronics, making them very secure.

How will Boeing promote and market the safe return of the 737 Max on its first day back in the air? 

It is impossible to know at this point. Each operator will handle the return to service differently. Some will make a media event out of showing the safety and reliability of it while others will attempt to make it “business as usual.”

What do the pilots do if there’s a loss of power? What’s the point of no returns?  

The total loss of power is extraordinarily rare. The first action would be to relight the engines. If that failed, a ditching would be required, as was the case with 2009’s “Miracle on the Hudson.”

After a bird strike disabled both engines minutes after taking off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport, Captain Chelsey Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles glided their US Airways Airbus A320 into the Hudson River in what was called the “most successful ditching in aviation history.”

Is it typical for pilots to have to burn off fuel on a flight prior to landing? I was on a completely full  flight on an Embraer 190 between Philadelphia  and Raleigh-Durham where the pilot had to lower the landing gear and fly around prior to landing. I’ve flown quite a bit and do not recall ever experiencing this. 

This happens occasionally. On some flights when the passenger load and cargo load is heavy, the flight is planned to land at the maximum landing weight. If they wind up burning less than what was forecast, then the pilots have to burn off the excess fuel to reduce the weight. Lowering the landing gear and to extend the flight accomplishes the needed fuel burn.

Some routes always seem to have dramatic air pockets, such as flying into Las Vegas. Are there some routes that are just more susceptible to sudden drops?   

I suspect you are feeling the effects of thermal heating causing turbulence. In places like Las Vegas where there are mountains and high heating, turbulence is more common. Usually, this occurs at lower altitudes although mountain waves can occur at cruise altitudes.

Why can’t airlines equip the entire cabin with active noise-canceling technology (not just headphones)? That would make long-haul flights more comfortable than pastel mood lighting. 

I have seen active noise-canceling technology in business jets and turboprop aircraft but not in airliners so far. The technology is available but I suspect cost and weight are the reasons it has not been installed yet.

In today’s modern aircraft, does turbulence make it physically tiring to control a plane or does fly by wire and automation take away physical exertion? 

Flying modern jets is not overly physical. The automation and powered flight controls have made it much easier and less physically stressful.

Do both pilots fly the plane under normal circumstances or only when there’s an emergency?

Both pilots are fully qualified to fly the airplane. Usually, one pilot flies the airplane while the other performs the duties of the monitoring pilot, such as communicating with air traffic control, handling checklists and overseeing the flight path. The breakdown of tasks between the flying pilot and monitoring pilot is very clearly defined but pilots are trained to perform both.

While traveling on a Boeing 737-800, I noticed there was no window in Row 10 on the left side. What is the reason for this? 

 There is often a missing window on jets since the air conditioning vents run up the wall there. Some airplanes also leave a window out in line with the fan section of the engine incase of a blade separation.

When the cabin door closes and the cabin staff announces for all cellular devices to be placed in airplane mode or turned off, some passengers feel this announcement does not pertain to them. They keep talking. Is it acceptable to rat them out to cabin staff?

Agreed, there are passengers who do not comply and get belligerent when a flight attendant does their job of reminding them of the rule.

Is there a speed limit for planes while taxiing on the taxiway? 

Some airports have speed limits but more often airplanes will have a limitation in the flight manual for maximum taxi speeds. This is usually around 30 knots.

Why do jumbo jets ascend at a lower rate? It takes them much longer to get to the desired altitude.

Large four-engine airplanes are slower to climb than two-engine airplanes due to the amount of excess thrust of two-engine airplanes. If a two-engine airplane experiences a loss of thrust in one engine (50% of the total thrust), it must still be able to climb and continue flight safely. A loss of thrust for a four-engine airplane only results in a 25% loss of thrust. The twin-engine plane has more excess thrust when all engines are operating and therefore climbs faster.

When a plane is experiencing severe turbulence, it’s difficult to judge how far “down” it appears to be falling or dropping – inches or feet?

In heavy turbulence it can feel like the airplane is going up and down long distances, when in reality it is only a few feet. Humans notice the rate of change (how fast you are going up or down) more than the magnitude of the excursion. Very rarely, turbulence can cause a change of a few hundred feet, but most times it is less than 100 feet.

If aircraft weight is so important, why aren’t aircraft windows made larger? Aren’t those materials lighter than the rest of the aircraft?

The structure around the window is heavier. If you look at airplanes designed as freighters, they do not have windows. This is done to reduce the weight and maintenance costs.

Planes making a sideways landing in a strong crosswind make for remarkable videos. How does the airplane landing gear handle the added stress of such landings?

If you look carefully, the airplane will yaw before touchdown to be more closely aligned with the runway. The pilot uses the rudder to reduce the crab angle just prior to touchdown. This reduces the sideload on the main landing gear. 

During certification flights the manufacturers demonstrate crosswind landing without yawing prior to touchdown to test the capability of the landing gear. While the gear is designed to take the load, it is a lot of force. 

Question: Why don’t airliners “power back” from the gate?

In the 1980s, airliners with aft-mounted engines (e.g., DC-9, MD-80 and B727) used powerback in an effort to reduce the number of ground personnel required. Today, most large airliners have underwing-mounted engines; they are too close to the ground and have a potential to ingest debris during a powerback. Powerback has safety risks; only a few aft-mounted engine jets could do it. I do not know of any airline using that procedure today.

 How safe are commercial airports with short runways

Commercial airports certified by the Federal Aviation Administration’s 14 CFR Part 139 are very safe. Runway length is carefully calculated before every takeoff and landing with good safety margins. Pilots know that the runway length is short, so they pay special attention to touchdown points and approach speeds.

Why are airlines still using 50-plus-year-old black boxes, when the technology currently exists to transmit all the same cockpit data and voice information in real time via satellite communications?

While technically possible, there are significant issues with real-time up-streaming of data. Who owns the data? What can it be used for? Can it be hacked? The Digital Flight Data and Cockpit Voice recorders have proven to be very successful over the decades. There is reluctance to lose this proven technology.

How would you suggest a passenger cope with turbulence, physically and emotionally?

The best steps to take physically are to remain seated with your seat belt securely fastened. This will prevent you being bounced around in the seat. If you want to sit in the area of the airplane that moves the least during turbulence, then choose a seat over the middle of the wing. The aft section of the airplane moves the most. Fear of the unknown is the root of the emotional discomfort. Some people believe that the airplane will suffer damage or even crash due to turbulence. The facts prove otherwise. Modern airplanes are designed to withstand very heavy turbulence.

 What problems would cause you to make an emergency landing?

A diversion to land at an alternate airport is often erroneously described as an emergency landing in media accounts. There is no emergency, but there is a change in plans. A problem with the pressurization system may require a diversion. A passenger with a medical problem may require a diversion. Some electrical problems will require a diversion. If there is an onboard fire, then an emergency landing is necessary. The difference is that in some fire conditions, the situation requires landing as soon as possible. That is an emergency. There are other conditions that require a diversion but only a very few require a true emergency landing.

How easy is it to land the largest jumbo jets?

A pilot with significant experience can transition to a very large airplane quickly. There is little difference in the handling characteristics, but the flight deck height and wingspan require practice. The 747 and A380 pilots I know characterize both as easy airplanes to fly.

What do you think of the recent attention given to companion animals on flights? Isn’t this a source of unnecessary distraction for both pilot and crew?

The issue of companion animals is a difficult one. There have been cases of animals biting passengers, getting loose, urinating and worse. The airlines had to do something due to the number of bad events that continued to rise. Current requirements for certification for the need for the animal by a doctor or physiologist appear to be reasonable.

What is the top speed for a typical jetliner without compromising the air frame? Is there such a thing as too fast for a plane (putting scheduling & ATC aside)?

Airplanes only know their speed in relation to the air around them. If there is a 200 mph tail wind, the speed of the airplane across the ground would be over 750 mph. All air frame speed limitations are based on airspeed not ground speed.

I notice that jet engine cowlings are scalloped on the rear edge on some engines and not on others. What is the purpose of the scalloped edge?

Newer engines have the saw tooth cowlings. They help make the engine quieter, particularly at higher power.

Is over-reliance on automation increasing the number of commercial airline accidents?

No, the number of accidents is decreasing. Over-reliance on automation has become a factor in a larger percentage of accidents, but the overall number is trending downward. The appropriate use of automation and maintaining manual flying skills are focus items for aviation. Training has to include extensive use of automation and manual flying.

Can a larger aircraft land on a shorter than recommended runway in an emergency?

Yes, it can be done. Every airplane has a required runway length due to the physics of decelerating. It is much shorter than many people realize. When landing on very short runways, the pilots will very carefully control the speed, touch down on the touchdown point and use all of the deceleration devices (brakes, spoilers and reverse thrust).

Where does my bag go when I check it?

From the time a bag is checked in, a series of belts and carts transport it to the waiting airplane. If your airplane is a larger one, the bag will be loaded into a container to make it faster to load onto the airplane. Security screening of the bag occurs before loading to ensure the safety of the flight. When the loading begins, it is sent up via belt loader or in the container into the cargo hold where it is kept warm (sort of) and pressurized during the fight. At your destination, the reverse occurs. The belt loader or container loader takes the bag to a cart where it is sent to the terminal to meet you.

How were airport codes assigned?

There are two different types of airport codes: the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA). ICAO uses a four-letter code, in which the first letter is the country code. The USA uses K for its code. The New York airports are KJFK for Kennedy, KLGA for LaGuardia and KEWR for Newark. These codes are used for the filing of flight plans and for air traffic control purposes. The IATA codes are used for ticketing and are three letters. Chicago O’Hare is ORD, London Heathrow is LHR, and London Gatwick is LGW. The IATA codes are used for baggage, too.

Is it safer to be on a smaller plane or larger one?

It is not possible to make a safety differentiation between small or large airplanes because the terms are vague. Regional airline-size airplanes have a somewhat higher accident rate than do larger airline jets. Turboprops have a higher accident rate than jets.

Airline jets have some models having lower accident rates than others, but size is not the determining factor. Aviation is the safest form of transportation. This makes it very hard to say that one airplane is significantly safer than another. They are both safe — even if one type has a slightly higher accident rate, that rate is still infinitesimal.

What efforts are being employed to ensure computer hacking doesn’t negatively influence modern aviation from the ground or while in flight?

Computer security is taken very seriously. Airplane flight control and flight management computers are segregated and hardened against outside intrusions.

It is possible a hacker might interfere with an in-flight entertainment system, but those and the onboard wireless system have separate pathways from the flight computers. Improving security is an ongoing effort by manufacturers, operators and the regulators.

 How do commercial airliners and military aircraft share the skies?

Air traffic control does a great job of keeping airplanes separated, be they commercial, private or military. In addition, the military branches have special airspace they can use for training and maneuvers.

Do airline pilots need a college degree?

Pilots have varied backgrounds; most are college graduates, and many have master’s degrees or PhDs. It is more important to be able to learn the material, understand it and properly apply it than to have a specific level of education.

4. Airlines are making it easier to change flights online, even if you’re not a frequent flyer. 

It’s no secret that airline reservation systems are overwhelmed by the surge of flight cancellations and changes. JetBlue executives last week said passengers are canceling flights at 10 times the normal rate.

U.S. airline websites advise travelers not to call unless their flight is in the next 72 hours.

What’s an anxious traveler to do? Change or cancel the flight on the airline’s website.

That can be daunting for infrequent flyers, but airlines from American to Allegiant have made it easier with tutorials on the process.

Allegiant, a budget carrier catering to vacationers, created a video and also warned travelers not to go to the airport to change their tickets. (Allegiant travelers often go to the airport to buy their tickets because it helps travelers avoid certain fees.)

Here is a tutorial for passengers who want to cancel their entire itinerary. If your reservations were purchased with a hotel, car, voucher, or promo code, you will still need to reach back out to us so that our team can assist you.

Fellow discounter Frontier Airlines posted a video to YouTube last week, walking travelers through the process.

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